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Oea (Tripoli)


Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins. Oea (Punic W'jt): Roman city in Libya, modern Tripoli.

Oea was a Phoenician town along the coast of what is now called Libya. Together with Lepcis Magna and Sabratha, Oea was reckoned to be part of the Tripolitana; in fact, it was the main city and when the other towns were evacuated, Oea was simply called Tripoli. There are a couple of Phoenician monuments. A tophet shows that the mlk-sacrifice took place.

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There are indications that the town, although founded by Phoenicians, was expanded by settlers from Sicily and especially Carthage, to which Oea, like the other Tripolitan towns, paid tribute. It was captured in 162 or 161 BCE by the Numidian ruler Massinissa, and became Roman during the war against Jughurta. However, it remained nominally independent, although this independence was soon an almost empty name.

Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
The only monument that is still visible, is the-socalled the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. It actually commemorates the victories of Marcus' brother Lucius Verus. In 161, the Parthian king Vologases IV had unexpectedly attacked the Roman empire and annihilated the Ninth legion Hispana. Lucius Verus led the counter-attack, which lasted several years, and culminated in the sack of the Parthian capital Ctesiphon.

A Victoria. Photo Marco Prins.
There were many monuments to commemorate this victory, like the Parthian Monument in Ephesus. That the arch in Oea was erected in 165, can be deduced from the emperors' style of titles, which calls them Armeniacus, a name they had accepted in the preceding year; the titles Medicus and Parthicus, which were added in 166, are still absent. The photo to the left shows a Victoria.

Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
The corners of the monument are directed to the four points of the compass, and the four façades are directed to the northwest, northeast, southeast. and southwest. The northwest face, which is shown here, is the best preserved. You must imagine a gilded statue of the emperors in a chariot on top if it. All this is very common.

Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
The decoration itself, however, is not, because it contains mythological symbols, like these griffins (winged lions with the head of an eagle). You will not find them in the spandrels of the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Septimius Severus, or the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Here, the griffins are shown in front of Lucius Verus' triumphal chariot.

Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
Opposite the emperor, there are sphinxes, this time in front of the chariot of the goddess Roma, the personification of the eternal city. The inscription mentions that the monument was erected by a local magistrate (IIvir) named Gaius Calpurnius Celsus, dedicated to the emperors, and that the proconsul of Africa, Sergius Cornelius Scipio Salvidienus, and his legatus Vittedius Marcellus were also involved.

Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
A military trophee, also visible on the northwest façade. It is a common sign on a Roman arch, although the custom of erecting trophies was Greek, and had nothing to do with Roman warfare.

The main arches were to the northeast and southwest (second and third picture). In the niches, statues must have stood; one of them was found and tentatively identified with Lucius Verus. This suggests that there must have been a statue of Marcus Aurelius as well; the other two cannot be identified. Above the four statues were four medallions, which probably represented the four seasons. On the arch's southeast façade (first picture), prisoners of war were shown. They are now badly damaged.


Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli. Photo Marco Prins.
Finally, the inner part of the arch.

Because modern Tripoli is built on top of ancient Oea, there are not many ruins. Several mosaics have been brought to the National Museum; and a mithraeum has been identified, which appears to date to the fourth century and must have been built by men who refused to become Christians.
Photo Ab Langereis (©*)
Detail of a temple, Tripoli (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
Oea also boasted a small temple dedicated in 183/184 to the Genius of the Colonia by a man named Lucius Aemilius Frontinus. This piece shows one of the Divine Twins, Apollo, Tyche (good fortune), and Minerva. The other twin is missing. Apollo and Minerva were the protectors of Oea. The name of the emperor Commodus has been erased from the inscription (damnatio memoriae).

Amphora from Tripoli (Libya). Photo Jona Lendering.
Of course, there must have been more in Roman Oea than an arch and a small temple, a mithraeum, and houses with mosaics. It must have been a lively town with all kinds of craftsmen and merchants. This amphora, now in the museum of Bani Walid, is from a villa near Oea called Casa Guetta. Ten kilometers west of Tripoli, you will find the very interesting rock tomb of Janzur, which is just one example of what must have been Oea's much larger western necropolis.

Oea/Tripoli was attacked by Arab armies in 642, but withstood the siege for one month, and although the Arabian sources claim that the city was finally captured, it seems to have returned to the Byzantine Empire soon.

A satellite photo, showing the arch, can be found here.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 13 Dec. 2008
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